How to duck the 3 most common entrepreneurial hiring traps

How to duck the 3 most common entrepreneurial hiring traps

Here’s a great thing about the tech arena: even when the economy is down, people keep having ideas.
Some number of them turn into start-up ventures (whether self-funded, friends-and-family backed or fueled some other creative way). After some period of time, they tend to create jobs. They create lots of jobs. In fact, small businesses create more new positions than large companies.
The trend shows no sign of slowing.
It can be appealing to jump onto the start-up train at a certain point in your career. It might be that you’ve worked in a pay-your-dues environment like public accounting or strategy consulting and you want to make a change. You may crave the fast pace and minimal structure that start-up workplaces enjoy.
But will you thrive in a start-up environment? Here are the three most common hiring traps that I have seen entrepreneurs fall into (causing pain for themselves and their miscast new team members).

1. Hiring Yourself

How many times have you heard a discontented corporate guy mutter: “I’ve gotta get out of here. I’m an entrepreneur at heart!”
While it’s a great thing to have the self-knowledge to recognize that you only have so many corporate cycles to burn in one lifetime, working for an entrepreneur is not the same as being one. If you really feel that you’re an entrepreneur in salaryman’s clothing, you may be better off starting a company.
Working for an entrepreneur may not be the greener pasture you really want.
First off, many entrepreneurs are drivers. They have lots of ideas and they need people who can execute them. If you’re game to watch and learn on your first entrepreneurial go around, you may thrive in a start-up where someone else has the ultimate responsibility for success or failure.
I want to warn you: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an entrepreneur exult in the new hire of “a guy just like me” who has become the start-up’s chief of marketing, chief strategist or business development guru.
Six months later, the newbie is gone and a cloud of mistrust and ill will remains. The entrepreneur essentially hired himself all over again when what he really needed was someone whose desire is to run marketing, product development or business development in a start-up rather than to be in charge.

2. Hiring Pure Skills

Entrepreneurs are great at looking at their growing organizations and saying: “We need an expert in VoIP.” They’re great at going out and finding that person. There’s only one problem: It’s a small start-up, and when push comes to shove, people have to do more than one thing well.
Research fellows out of academia or technology think tanks often gravitate to start-ups. Who can blame them?
Still, it’s hard to make this work in the typical scrappy start-up environment where you have to do what you have to do in order to survive. You often don’t have the luxury of making a hire for pure technical skills.
Inventors also have to be project managers, debuggers and sales engineers all in one. They’ll be more useful to the organization if they can also speak on panels, play a technical role in business development conversations and maybe dabble in technical marketing as well.
Sure, the iconic image of the super geek who doesn’t talk to humans is a great one, but as a practical matter, you have to have achieved a certain size before you’ll really be happy making this kind of hire. Hire this employee too early and you may start wondering when all those accolades on his resume are going to earn you some revenue.

3. Hiring For Excess Order

It’s a natural instinct. As a start-up grows and things start to get crazy, entrepreneurs think: “The next person I hire will be an orderly control freak. They’ll help us keep on top of the mayhem.”
To everyone else’s dismay, you see this in hiring CFOs, office managers and HR people. Chaotic start-ups can surely benefit from a certain amount of incremental order as they grow. Processes deployed thoughtfully to keep business operations on track are great additions.
Still, there are plenty of people out there who live to create rules, policies and tedious process charts in highly inappropriate situations.
I once sat through a PowerPoint presentation where a new product launch process was unveiled (including 217 steps to be taken in marketing alone). Even though this kind of lockstep process will choke a start-up, entrepreneurs buy into the “process for its own sake” message because they mistrust their own instinctive urge to just get stuff done.
It’s a sad thing to watch a vibrant and customer-responsive start-up become fractious and hidebound as the “process police” take over. Don’t let this happen. Make sure every new hire brings sufficient business experience to install process only where it’s needed, where it will speed up a key business process and where it makes sense to all participants.

The Great Start-Up Hire

Having identified these three common mismatches, it’s harder to describe the ideal formula for start-up hiring. The fact is that there’s a wide variety of temperaments and skill backgrounds that can be hugely beneficial in a start-up environment.
While I’d say that flexibility and a low level of change aversion are major factors, one of the best start-up employees I know is the steadiest Eddie you could find.
Sure, I’d tell you that a desire to break down barriers is a critical success component, but that can get you into trouble in an environment where making the wrong deal could put you out of business.
In the end, you have to trust the candidate’s judgment and integrity, believe in his business skills and decide that you’d like to work with him (that plus the tips above should stand you in pretty good stead). If he doesn’t work out, there’s always your college roommate.
Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.